When Joseon was in turmoil during the Japanese invasion in 1596, King Seonjo ordered the court physician Heo Jun to write a medical book specifically for the common people of Joseon. After 14 years of strenuous efforts to develop treatment methods for grassroots people, in 1610 Heo Jun finally published a medical book that laid a foundation for traditional Korean medicine. That book is none other than “Dongui Bogam,” or “Mirror of Eastern Medicine.”
Overcoming social barriers
Heo Jun was born in 1537 in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province as an illegitimate child of an aristocrat. Both his father and grandfather were military officers, but Heo Jun was banned from following in their footsteps because he was born of his father’s concubine. By his early 30s, Heo Jun had already gained recognition for his outstanding medical skills and was named court physician. But there are no historical records about why Heo Jun decided to study medicine and how he became a doctor. The only document that describes Heo Jun’s medical practices prior to when he was first mentioned in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty says that Heo Jun helped treat the family of a Joseon Confucian scholar. According to the document, Heo Jun drew particular attention for curing the scholar of abscesses on his face, and was later invited to work for one of Joseon’s prestigious hospitals that provided medical services for the royal family. After he was promoted to a high position in 1573, Heo Jun treated the king and published medical books. He once received deer skin as a reward for curing the king of a disease. His name finally became famous in 1590, when he cured the critically ill Prince Gwanghae of smallpox while nobody else believed that the prince had the smallest chance to survive.
During the Japanese invasion of Joseon, Heo Jun saved the prince’s life yet again and earned the highest medical position, but his glory didn’t last long. In 1608, when King Seonjo died, Heo Jun was accused of killing the king by misusing medicine and was exiled. It was the hardest period in Heo Jun’s life, but that’s also when he wrote “Dongui Bogam.”
Laying the foundation for traditional Korean medicine
“Dongui Bogam” consists of 25 volumes, each dealing with internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery, gynecology and other fields. It was written for the common people of Joseon and it describes in detail all kinds of diseases and treatment methods. The book also mentions traditional methods of treating various diseases and even Heo Jun’s personal medical experience. Even people who are unfamiliar with medicine can easily find the names of medicines and learn about their use.
“Dongui Bogam” is like a summary of medical practices that were used at the time in East Asia. It contributed greatly to improving harsh health care conditions and improving public access to medicine. About 115 years after the book was published, all of its volumes were translated into Japanese and later into Chinese. In July last year, “Dongui Bogam” became the first medical book to be added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World program.
Becoming a legend
Many legends exist about Heo Jun and his medical skills. An 18th century Joseon historical record says that Heo Jun often received praise for curing elephants. Another legend has it that Heo Jun received a golden needle after he cured a tiger and with that needle he later cured a Chinese emperor. After that, all physicians who had been imprisoned for failing to cure the emperor were released from prison and shared their medical secrets with Heo Jun, who later wrote a book based on the information he had received from them. That book was none other than “Dongui Bogam.”
Until the day he died at age 77 in 1615, Heo Jun wrote numerous medical books and spared no effort to help Joseon people enjoy healthy lives. His efforts have earned him respect from the Korean people, who continue to regard him as a legendary and extraordinary doctor.